Frank Jacobson, president of the SCC, says that the decision to develop a museum for contemporary art, architecture and design grew from a sense in the early 1990s that the SCA's art program needed to be expanded.
He says that the lack of a sound permanent collection prevented the council from creating an encyclopedic museum along the lines of the Phoenix Art Museum (PAM). "When it came down to discussions with the board, we knew that the community would support probably two kinds of museums here, a western one or a contemporary one."
He says board members briefly entertained the idea of developing a plan, similar to the one built by the Palm Springs Desert Museum in California, that included a western wing and a contemporary wing. But they quickly realized the futility of trying to duplicate the kind of western collection that PAM already has.
Jacobson and Knight say the decision to focus on contemporary art, architecture and design stemmed from a desire to capitalize on the strength of the SCA's past programs. In the past five years, the SCA has mounted at least three architectural exhibitions. Outside of an exhibition of Gerard Cafesjian's glass collection, it hasn't done much recently in the area of design. But in its early days, it hosted a number of ceramic exhibitions. And it always has exhibited contemporary art.
Like PAM and many other western art institutions, the SCA wasn't built around a distinct collection. It grew from a sense that the town deserved to have a community cultural center.
Patricia Hartwell is credited with having planted the SCA's seed in the 1960s, when she began installing small art exhibitions on the second floor of the library.
Hartwell, a former war correspondent, and her husband, who owned The Arizonian newspaper, settled here in the 1950s. Her years of living in New York and traveling in Europe had brought her in touch with works by many renowned 20th-century artists. She says she didn't have money to purchase large paintings. But she could afford prints and some small works by Picasso, Chagall, Matisse and others.
"I'm not sure why I decided to put on those shows," she says, "I guess I just thought it was an important thing for the community to do--something to help move us from being just a cow town to something else."
Friends say she brought an informality to showing and sharing the arts that became a hallmark of the SCA's early programs. Once, when her son's class was studying modern art, Hartwell sent him to school with two small oil paintings by Marc Chagall in a brown paper bag. Aside from exhibiting works from her own collection at the library, she borrowed from just about anyone who had anything of cultural note--paintings by Lon Megargee, santos from New Mexico, batiks, photographs or sculptures by such area artists as Philips Sanderson and Don Bassett.
Her exhibitions weren't the first or only ones in Scottsdale, but they were the first to make the arts a part of the city's municipal business. Many people credit Hartwell's political connections (she wrote speeches for former Scottsdale mayor Bud Tims who served from 1966 to 1974) and savvy with convincing city officials to develop the SCA.
John Armstrong, who became the SCA's art curator shortly after it opened in 1975, was the one who set the eclectic course for its exhibitions. He and an assistant ran 36 shows a year on a budget of $32,000. He recalls that they hung three shows a month. And they never had any doors to close, so visitors often got a behind-the-scenes view of shows being hung and unhung.
Armstrong's exhibitions ranged from Korean folk art, American quilts, Native American art, Jacob Epstein bronzes and touring exhibitions from the Smithsonian Institution to sculptures by Fritz Wotruba, naive art from Yugoslavia and ceramics by Rudy Autio or Gertrud and Otto Natzler. "We did a large show of Louise Nevelson," Armstrong recalls, "and a bunch of national competitive shows. Once a year we tried to do a really big show--with a catalogue. We did ones for Lew Davis, then Phil Curtis and Dorothy Fratt."
While other local museums leaned toward scholarly uplift, the SCA played to rank and file cultural enthusiasts--particularly artists. Before art centers sprouted in other Valley cities, Scottsdale was the first to give contemporary artists a home--an identity that lies at the core of SMOCA.